City of Promise

Jillian Schedneck

Every Tuesday and Thursday at dawn, I rode the 57 Bus into Kenmore Square–home of Fenway Park, the Citgo Sign, and Landsdowne Street, the center of Boston’s nightlife. By the time the sun peaked through the gray buildings on Commonwealth Avenue, I’d persuaded myself into believing I’d made the right decision moving back to America, to Boston, a place that had once for me, held so much promise.

Heading toward my class filled with budding engineers, I could believe my life was still clipping along, following its intended path. But this certainty only lasted half an hour. By the time I switched to the 8 Bus and, got off at the corner of Huntington and Ruggles, I knew I’d need another fiction to get by.

When my sister and I were sixteen, we visited Boston for the first time, and stayed in my cousin’s “executive” apartment near Faneuil Hall. The city swarmed with students and panhandlers, buskers and business people, advertisements for plays and musicals like Rent, and Inherit the Wind, flapped on light poles, scaffolding took over sidewalks, while the ping of crosswalk lights and the constant rumbling of the T echoed in the near distance.

I remember wondering where all those trains were going, and how people knew which ones to take. Even my mother was different, gripping her purse and not making eye contact with any passersby, then flirting with taxi drivers and doormen, local shop owners and bus drivers.

On the six hour drive back home to New Jersey, I remember wanting to reprimand my mother for making me grow up in the isolating, dull suburbs full of strip malls and two lane highways, when a city like Boston existed. I wanted to ask her, “Why in the world did you choose here? Why didn’t I grow up there?” But I knew even then, my mom loved our town in New Jersey in a way I never would.

It was the same with my classmates, who said they couldn’t imagine leaving New Jersey’s beaches, its malls and its four, perfect seasons. They were lucky enough to grow up in a place they loved. And on that first trip to north, to a city I’d never before known, surrounded by rumbling Ts, buskers and scaffolding, I knew I’d found the place I wanted to belong, a place I wanted to belong to me: Boston.

And so Boston became my first city, the glorious setting of my college years. And, at twenty-nine, after six years away and having lived in, or traveled to, cities such as London, Prague, Chiang Mai, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I reasoned going back to the city that had once offered me so much promise and light, would not only be nostalgic, but renewing.

On my return, on a gray, October morning, I took a much-needed nap in my new sub-letted room, then headed out to purchase my own bedding. I was so out of sorts that, for the first time in my adult life, I forgot to put on a bra. Folding my arms over my ribs, I tried to cover my chest with my handbag. In this way, I trudged all over downtown, forgetting how to get where I wanted to go, and not finding what I thought I would when I finally arrived. I spent too much money on bedding I didn’t like, and struggled to carry it home on two buses and a twenty-minute walk uphill.

I had forgotten so much about Boston, like how grey the sky could be, how its shadows could seep into me. I had forgotten how many university students lived there, how packed the T could get with young women and men, hovering over each other in a practiced balance, in their sensible boots and fur-lined hooded jackets.

Watching those young people wait for the T at Harvard Square in Cambridge or Copley, in the swankier parts of Backbay, made me wonder if that should have been me, if I should have stayed, and spent all of my twenties in Boston.

Instead I had been a young woman on my own in the wider world. So many people had called me “brave” for moving to London at twenty-two, for dealing with a break-in during the first week of my arrival, then finding a job as an editorial assistant in that famously snooty city. Then, at twenty-six, moving to Abu Dhabi to teach English, a place that sounded fictional to many of my friends–a comical, made-up place, where Garfield tries to mail Nermal over and over again. I wore those compliments as a badge of honor, believing that living abroad made me superior to those who never chose to leave their home.

But on those early mornings, on the 57 bus, I envied those who had stayed in Boston and built a life. I too wanted to be someone who saw only what was in front of me, not always looking beyond, chasing after some idea of what I thought my life should be.

My college years in Boston were a blur of hustling to the T to take me into the city, to search for CDs in Kenmore Square, to stroll through the finery of Copley Mall, or stand around in dingy bars on Commonwealth Ave, waiting to watch bands I’d never heard of.

For those first few months after I’d arrived,, Boston was more thrilling than I could have imagined. When I turned out the light each night, I slept so deeply that when I awoke, it felt as though I’d lost myself. Each morning, as I recollected who and where I was, I would smile up at the sky. My city was only a T ride away.

After that first Thanksgiving break, spent back in New Jersey, riding the the dusty grey bus back into Boston, I watched the city rise in the glowing distance, my chest expanding with the knowledge that I belonged somewhere within that great mass.

After Christmas break, when I returned once again, on the bus, I read these lines from Mrs Dalloway: “What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.” As Clarissa sinks into the memories of the prime and glow of her youth, I imagined I was doing the same. I’d thought then, this was the pinnacle. Little did I know then, there was so much more.

The summer after sophomore year, my three friends and I piled into a one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge’s Central Square, getting jobs at Starbucks or furniture stores or summer camps. I took a job next to South Station, and rode the Red Line into the Financial District with all the suits and stockbrokers, men and women rolling suitcases, on some journey, I imagined to some other, lesser station, far away.

Delighted to be among them, I fancied myself someone who had a real job and lived on my own in a city apartment, like the one my cousin let us use so long ago. On those T rides, Boston became home. AndI imagined it would remain that way for the rest of my life.

But a junior semester abroad in England, changed everything. Within hours of landing, I decided I wanted to stay in Bath for-ever. My four months in that city easily escalated from an experience I thought should have before returning to my American life, into something else entirely.

Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so fickle. But in England, I turned into someone new: a version of myself I’d only dreamed of. I spoke up in class, made new friends laugh, and gathered the courage to visit new cities on my own. England offered me a landscape, where the writers I loved and studied produced their great works. It offered me the chance to flirt with English boys who complimented my dark eyes, whereas American boys never seemed half so interested. I was hooked.

When I did return to Boston, it seemed smaller, less friendly than Bath, and definitely not a gateway to a whole other continent or culture. It was a place where I could stay only the same.
And, at the ripe age of twenty-one, I wanted to change, evolve, grow, and never stop. So, for the remainder of my twenties, that’s what I did—travelled and grew, and expanded my sense of self. I learned to see America and Americans as part of the world, and not the centre of it. And it took leaving my home country, my home, to know that. To know it deeply.

Wherever I went, I kept seeking the authentic experience, until I realized that it was all real—every Tube stop and tower, every other foreigner and desert and castle. I thought I would keep changing forever, until the dream of writing a book about my experiences teaching local university students, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, brought me back to America–broke. I was never any good at saving.

At twenty-nine, during my first autumn back in Boston, I tried to drum up the same fluttering anticipation I’d experienced in all those other cities I had lived, that I’d experienced when living here during my college years. But, I couldn’t. Instead, I worked odd hours teaching online, and busied myself with walking.

I’d start at Downtown Crossing, follow one of the tree-lined paths through the Commons, and then linger, or read in the manicured Public Gardens. I’d stroll past the Newbury Street shops—an onslaught of suddenly luminous skin and chic shoes, homewares I wouldn’t use, and bars and restaurants I couldn’t afford. I smirked as I thought back on my undergraduate self, who had come here and presumed all this was part of my grown-up future.

Crossing Boylston Street into Copley Square, I’d enter the grand, public library, run a finger along the spines of travel books on the third floor, then catch the T, or walk the length of Commonwealth Avenue, back home. Feet sore in my flimsy boots, I’d wonder what I’d accomplished with my walks and my return to Boston. Where was that magical city? Where had the light gone, the glow? Why couldn’t I return to it? What had gone wrong?

I couldn’t find an answer, so every morning during that fall and winter, I read local magazines like Improper Bostonian or The Boston Phoenix, my eyes drawn to anything new or popular. I read voraciously and consistently, as if one day I would be rooted there, and on that day, those tidbits of local news and events would matter.

Then, one morning, my enthusiasm hesitated, receded, refused to be summoned. I had changed too much. None of the local news, plays, live music or readings interested me. During my college days, just a ride on the Red Line was a thrill, but not anymore. I’d been in too many other places, lived too many other lives. I should have stopped trying then and there, made my plans to get out, but I was stubborn. Boston had lost its promise, but I wanted it back.

I decided I wasn’t going back to Dubai, or anywhere else. I’d grown tired of that lifestyle—the fruitless partying, the hangovers, all of my cursory connections to students, colleagues and other expats. I would banish myself from searching the international section of, cease contemplating my next move to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, or Nizwa in Oman. I would no longer think about that scholarship to the University of Adelaide in Australia I’d applied for months ago–something my sister had encouraged me to do.

And though Boston’s initial promise was gone, I told myself I was done living abroad, no matter how much it called to me. I would get a proper job at Tufts or Boston University; I would volunteer as an ESL teacher for new refugees in Roxbury. I would find that elusive boyfriend. It all would just take more energy and effort than I had imagined, but it would happen. And it would happen in Boston. I was sure.

By spring, I’d secured the adjunct position at Wentworth Institute of Technology, teaching literature to engineers, and taking the 57 bus each early morning into Kenmore Square. It was something, but not much. I continued teaching online to pay off my debts, and often worked from the moment I woke to the moment I fell asleep.

On a rare first date, confessional from the wine, I spoke about how, until I’d moved back to Boston, I used to believe that everyone’s life was on a certain path. All our trajectories were orchestrated by some unknown, yet divine and benevolent force, which allowed each person to learn and grow at their own pace.

At the time, I’d just turned thirty, and voicing those old sentimental and immature beliefs made me blush. Having lived abroad, that was how I’d envisioned my life: the winds of the universe directing me, designing divine and perfect experiences so I would learn, grow, evolve, thrive. I reddened once again. What an embarrassing idea.

By my third glass of wine, I’d told my date about my next fiction, the one that got me through a day of teaching those surly, but sweet engineers. It was a day, years in the future, when I imagined my students walking to work at sunrise, or staring at another string of html code, and a line of a poem we’d once read would float into their minds, lingering there all day long.

It would resound in their minds, hum throughout their whole body, and they would ruminate on its meaning until they fell asleep that night. They would silently thank me, that teacher whose name they’d long forgotten. And I believed then, that this would be enough.

On the day I found out my life would change completely, Boston was stunning. The whole city shimmered, suddenly becoming one of the most handsome places I’d ever seen, an echo, a reminder, of all it had once been to me. That morning, I’d received an email from the University of Adelaide in Australia, notifying me of my acceptance into their PhD program in Gender Studies. I stared at it, gob-smacked… elated. I had so deeply buried all hope I would win the scholarship, I had nearly forgotten the possibility was out there.

I had pushed aside the memory of those evenings researching Australian universities, contacting professors, and putting together my application to the University of Adelaide. If you had shown me a map of Australia, I wouldn’t have been able to find Adelaide. That’s how ill-prepared I was, how little I thought this would happen. I glared at my departure date. By the time I would leave for Australia, I’d have lived in Boston for a year.

All that summer, waiting for my new life in Australia to begin, I read in the Boston Commons like I used to, sitting on the grass and letting the dew seep into my jeans, feeling the city’s glimmer and glow in the background. Or, I’d watch the sunlight glisten on the frog pond, or children chasing after pigeons. Could it ever be that city of promise again, I would wonder, some day in the future?

In that Boston year, I had climbed out of debt, helping dozens of students from all over the world practice their English. A day before I left for Australia, one of my students, a young man named Chun, thrust a gift into my hands: an expensive, highly impractical tea set.

For a year, we had met for two hours every week and discussed short stories by Flannery O’Connell and Raymond Carver–things he wasn’t yet reading in his university classes. His card thanked me for all he had learned about American life in our time together, and how much he would miss our meetings. It was only when I read that note, that I realized how much he loved Boston–his own first city. And that I had helped him find it.

Four years later, upon a return visit to Boston with my Australian husband, we trudged through its December snows. He marvelled at the weather, the squishing of his new boots into mud and slush, and across slippery ice. Of all the cities we’d visited in America, Boston was the only one we agreed we would want to live in, if we ever decided to live in America.

I told him about the plane ride that took me to Australia for the first time. I told him I wasn’t nervous, like I usually was before settling in somewhere new. Instead, I said, I sank deep into my seat, thinking, I was going.

As I watched the plane take off from my window seat, Boston’s skyline disappearing, made smaller and smaller, the higher we climbed, I didn’t dwell on that disappointing year in Boston, but imagined the shimmering city I was leaving behind. Boston hadn’t changed enough for me to stay, but I had changed enough to leave again. The city that once held such promise, did hold promise, it had allowed me to grow into a woman who could belong to cities and all over the world.

Jillian Schedneck is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights and runs the travel memoir writing website Writing From Near and Far at Her nonfiction has appeared in Brevity, The Manifest-Station, Eclectica Magazine and The Lifted Brow, among others. She holds an MFA from West Virginia University and a PhD from the University of Adelaide in Australia. Jillian lives in Adelaide with her husband and daughter.
Featured Artwork:
Monet, Claude. Rue de la Bavolle, Honfleur. 1864, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.